Dennis O’Connell took an idea and, with the help of several organizations, transformed it into what could be an recreational and educational legacy in Taylor.
O’Connell is a bit reminiscent of Ben Franklin in appearance and ideals. Among the multitude of accomplishments attributed to Franklin, he and his buddies devised the modern public library. O’Connell also has found a way to combine libraries and fishing to make the outdoor experience available to all.
In 2005, while O’Connell worked for the Wayne Community College District, he attended a fishing expo full of fun new products for anglers. Everyone there was an adult. He wondered why there was nothing like that for children. O’Connell mentioned this to then-president of WCCC-Downriver Campus, Dr. Nick Fleezanis. Fleezanis, an avid fly fisherman, said, “Why don’t you put something together?”
First O’Connell looked for partners. His wife, Annette, was first to come on board. Then Gander Mountain, the Huron Valley Sportsmen’s Club, the Coast Guard Auxiliary and the Michigan Sea Grant joined. The college and the city of Taylor said they were in, too. They formed a committee. Now they needed a location. Within walking distance of the college was a park. Not many fish, but a nice park with a pond.
While pondering the pond, he attended an event sponsored by the Recreational Boating and Fishing Foundation, the SE Michigan Summit for Fishing, Boating and Aquatic Stewardship.
“They ran through ways to embark on a mentoring program for young people,” O’Connell said. “MSU’s Dr. Shari Dann really inspired me. I realized the program had to be fun, not just fishing.”
O’Connell remembered mosquito-filled nights and empty creels from his childhood.
“I decided we needed to send kids home with fun bright things, not just pieces of instructional paper and bug bites,” he said. “I wanted them to be comfortable on the water, learn knot-tying, water safety, have life vests.”
Michigan Steelheaders, the Chippewa Indians and the Department of Natural Resources also chipped in with volunteers. Now they just needed the fish. O’Connell requested funds from WCCC to stock the pond and the merriment began.
Children of all ethnicities arrived from as far away as Flint and Ohio for the inaugural weekend of the Fish n’ Fun program. Gander Mountain supplied 100 rods. The Huron Valley Sportsmen’s Club taught kids to make their own fishing harness on the spot. Every kid caught a fish. Three years into the program, there were more kids than rods. The college supplemented funds for more.
A weekend fishing program wasn’t enough. “I realized I wouldn’t be here forever,” he said.
The city of Taylor gave him an unused water wheel building to use as an educational activity center. Three weeks ago, it opened. More than 350 visitors have stopped in for Fish n’ Fun. It’s available 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, free to public.
Perhaps the masterpiece of O’Connell’s vision is the library lending program. Not everyone who tries fishing through a fishing program owns a rod and tackle. At the Taylor Library, anyone can get a book. They also can get a rod and tackle on loan for a week, then walk to the pond and catch a slice of adventure to release or bring home to the family for sustenance. The same program just opened at the Bacon Memorial District Library in Wyandotte, and the Belleville Library also has demonstrated an interest.
Franklin’s original lending society had a motto: “To support the common good is divine.” O’Connell’s program does so in an uncommon way.
By Lydia Lohrer
Detroit Free Press Special Writer